Hope on hooves is arriving in South Dakota, one heifer at a time.
A month after a freak blizzard dumped up to 4 feet of snow in western South Dakota, killing about 14,000 cattle, 45 donated cattle from Montana designed to serve as breeding stock were sent on Friday to ranchers in The Mount Rushmore State. Another 400 cattle, including yearling and bred heifers worth as much as $75,000, have also been sent to South Dakota from neighboring Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota to help the afflicted ranchers get back on their feet ahead of the looming harsh winter.
“The support from other states has been phenomenal,” Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, told FoxNews.com early Monday. “We have volunteers from in the state who have helped with cleanup, we have people from surrounding states who shipped heifers and about $1.5 million has been donated to the Rancher Relief Fund.”
Christen estimated in the days after the storm that as many as 100,000 cattle would ultimately die as a result of the “devastating” storm, although state officials have said the blizzard killed roughly 14,000 cattle, more than 1,200 sheep, nearly 300 horses and 40 bison. She still expects that number to “go up quite a bit” in coming weeks. Part of the problem, Christen said, is that state officials have relied on self-reporting from ranchers, some of whom may be dealing with the guilt of not suffering widespread losses like their counterparts.
“They’re a very private, self-sufficient group,” Christen said of ranchers. “The emotional flow of this whole thing has been incredible. These ranchers define themselves as caretakers of their animals and many of them feel they have failed in their role.”
Christen continued: “Many of them say, ‘Well, our neighbors had it worse,’ and some of them haven’t reported those losses due to survivor’s guilt. Many of these ranchers won’t be able to financially survive this. There’s an incredible amount of guilt among those who are going to survive. Many of them wish they can do more for others.”
Two people desperate to make a difference were Montana ranchers Rene Brown and Alisha Burcham, who began gathering cattle donations from northern Montana through Heifers for South Dakota. The organization selected family ranches that had herds of roughly 160 cattle but lost up to 60 percent of them in the storm.
“Twelve hours this way with that storm and that could have been us,” Brown told The Associated Press.
Brown, a rancher near Chinook, Mont., could not be reached for comment early Monday. Her brother-in-law, Earl Brown, started moving the donated cattle on Friday.
“I told him I wanted to get a pot load of cattle together to send to South Dakota,” she continued. “He told me I couldn’t do it and that if I did, he would drive them there. Well, we did and even have donations for the fuel, so he’s donating his time for the drive.”
Many small producers in South Dakota did not have insurance due to high costs, she said.
“Congress may approve some disaster aid, but that’s not a sure thing and they can’t even pass a farm bill,” Brown said. “This donation will make a big difference to ranchers in South Dakota. I knew the Hi-Line would come through, but it is humbling to see this come together.”
The South Dakota Rancher Relief Fund was established by a consortium of livestock organizations following the blizzard and has thus far raised $1.5 million, Christen said. An application deadline of Dec. 31 has been set in order to assess the number of applicants and the severity of those applicants’ needs.
“The outpouring of support for the West River ranchers who lost animals during the blizzard has been overwhelming,” South Dakota cattleman Cory Eich said in a statement.
As winter approaches, Christen said colder conditions have helped the cleanup effort by drying up large mud patches created by melted snow and water runoff.
“The snow has melted and we’ve had some new snowfall, but there’s not a lot on the ground,” she said. “The ground is freezing though, which is actually helping things because it’s easier to move around these ranches and get to remote areas.”
And while the long-term financial outlook looks dicey for some ranchers, especially young breeders, Christen said livestock producers in South Dakota have plenty to be thankful for ahead of the holiday season.
“It has been incredible to see the kind of support we have gotten,” Christen told FoxNews.com. “It’s really kind of beyond words. It’s been very humbling.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.